As Whitman’s Academic Theme committee began to put together the theme’s online content, the question of visual representation came up.
One thing was evident: A simple stock art image was not going to work.
"We wanted to be intentional about our choices … to showcase artwork that expresses our theme in ways that not only reflect what we want to do, but also inspire us to think and teach and learn along the theme of Race, Violence and Health,” says Lisa Uddin, associate professor of art history and visual culture studies and Garrett Fellow.
For Uddin, the artist, Favianna Rodriguez’s work immediately came to mind. Rodriguez is a social justice worker, a cultural organizer and a visual artist. Her work traverses her many roles, recently centering on equity issues exposed by the pandemic.
“We were looking to find a visual language that would communicate some of the spirit of the theme.”
In 2016, Whitman’s art department brought Rodriguez to campus to present her artwork and interact with students.
“She inspired students to think creatively with art about social justice issues. I knew that some of her work would speak directly and exuberantly to the aspirations that we have for the academic theme.”
Uddin has found herself thinking about “Quarantine Spring 14” often during the pandemic and her own experiences with quarantine.
“Rodriguez was isolated when she created this series, she was experimenting and creating art with less,” Uddin says.
The artwork is both figurative and abstract. Uddin sees biomorphic design elements in “Quarantine Spring 14” that mirror the naturally occurring shapes and patterns of nature and living organisms. These are forms familiar to 20th Century surrealist art. But there is also the iconography of the hand, common in modern and contemporary political posters.
“I see the hand reaching out from a gray ground. The gray could be concrete, it could be carceral, border walls or urban space. Then we have very playful colors and forms that are joyous. It is both struggle and joy at the same time, which I think is part of the landscape of the pandemic and maybe quarantine in particular for Rodriguez and the communities that she is connected to,” Uddin says as she reflects on the thoughts and feelings the artwork evokes.
“The simultaneity of these contradictions, and their precision, the sense of despair and the possibilities of other futures. It stands as an exemplar artwork with which to think about the theme.”